In Iran, a hardline hunt for ‘infiltrators’ has political target, too

Why We Wrote This

Iranian hardliners’ fear of Western cultural influence has morphed into anxiety over an “infiltration project” by the US, Israel, and others, spurring arrests of alleged enemies, including even government officials.

Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters/File
Jason Rezaian (c.), one of five American prisoners released by Iran in January 2016 ahead of the lifting of international sanctions, greeted media with his wife, Yeganeh Salehi (l.), and mother, Mary Rezaian (r.), outside the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

For years there’s been a widening crackdown inside Iran against alleged enemies of the Islamic Republic. Environmentalists, women’s rights activists, and lawyers have increasingly been targeted. Even a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team is now behind bars.

The bulk of security arrests are made by the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Its ideologues – echoing Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – have been stepping up warnings of enemy infiltrators, going so far as to claim that all levels of the regime have been penetrated and must be “fundamentally cleansed.” But that all-powerful IRGC arm is often in competition with the Ministry of Intelligence, controlled by the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani, with the rivalry sometimes boiling down to disputes as basic as who is and who is not a spy.

An Iranian analyst who asked not to be named says there is a “clear element of partisanship” in the crackdown, directed against Mr. Rouhani. “They want to beat up on Rouhani because they feel he is on the ropes now, the [nuclear deal] has almost collapsed, and ‘we can go in for the strike and cut him off at the knees,’ ” says the analyst.

She once won Iran’s Book of the Year prize for a scholarly examination of fertility rates. But the Iranian-born academic was arrested last November, accused of “infiltration” and “espionage” – part of a widening crackdown inside Iran against alleged enemies of the Islamic Republic.

Dr. Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi, a research fellow at the Australian National University and citizen of both Iran and Australia, was released from prison in late January.

But her incarceration is just one of dozens that signify a new round of “securitization” in Iran, a clampdown marked by the heightened activity of the intelligence and security apparatus. Environmentalists, women’s rights activists, and lawyers have increasingly been targeted. Even a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team is now behind bars.

That result is the culmination of a transformation among hard-line elements in Iran, from a stated fear of a Western “cultural invasion,” above all, to apparent anxiety about an “infiltration project” by the United States, Israel, and other enemies, analysts say.

The clampdown began during the Obama years, with such high-profile cases as the 544-day imprisonment of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, who was accused of being the CIA “station chief” in Tehran. But the current escalation has coincided with President Trump’s expressed determination to impose “maximum pressure” against Iran.

The bulk of security arrests are made by the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which reports directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Its ideologues – echoing Mr. Khamenei – have been stepping up warnings of enemy infiltrators, going so far as to claim that all levels of the regime have been penetrated and must be “fundamentally cleansed.”

But that all-powerful IRGC arm is often in competition with the Ministry of Intelligence, controlled by the relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani, with the rivalry sometimes boiling down to disputes as basic as who is, and who is not, a spy.

Caught in the middle have been Iranians with dual US, UK, or Canadian citizenship, environmentalists working to protect Iran’s endangered Asian cheetah population, women’s activists determined to change mandatory hijab laws, lawyers who have sought to defend them, and many others.

“Once Mr. Khamenei changed his language from ‘cultural invasion’ to the notion of specific infiltration, he opened the way for all these arrests,” says Farideh Farhi, a veteran Iran expert at the University of Hawaii.

“Cultural invasion was a broad concept of McDonald’s coming, of cultural changes,” says Ms. Farhi. “Infiltration is infiltration inside the government, and that completely changed the game. It shows a sense of insecurity. It has had consequences that we see.”

Amnesty sees ‘repression’

Amnesty International estimates that at least 63 environmental activists and researchers were detained in 2018, among some 7,000 Iranians that the human rights group calculates were arrested, most during antigovernment protests, in what it calls a “shameless campaign of repression.”

This week, Iran’s top judge asserted that Iran held no “political prisoners,” and said 50,000 inmates would be pardoned or have their sentences shortened to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But those are not likely to include long-standing “security” cases, such as those of US-Iranian businessman Siamak Namazi, held since October 2015, or his father, Baquer Namazi, 82, also a dual citizen and former UNICEF diplomat. Both were convicted of “collaborating” with an enemy power. They are among several other US and US dual citizens imprisoned in Iran.

As the Islamic Republic marks its four-decade birthday, it faces multiple challenges. Among them: an economy crippled by renewed US sanctions, corruption, and mismanagement; a society deeply divided by the rigors of that revolution; and a political space that is gridlocked, pitting hard-line factions staunchly against Mr. Rouhani.

They vilify the president for reaching out to the West, and for believing that the 2015 nuclear deal he agreed to with the US and other world powers would remove all sanctions and jump-start the economy, in exchange for restricting Iran’s nuclear program.

It was while that nuclear deal was being finalized that Khamenei’s warnings of “infiltration” took on greater urgency, expanding into a catch-all action framework – and license to arrest ­– for Iran’s hard-line IRGC intelligence arm.

Weeks after the July 2015 deal was agreed, for example, Khamenei stated that the nuclear talks were “just their [US] tool for infiltration and imposing their will.” Addressing IRGC commanders on Sept. 16 that year, Khamenei used the term “infiltration” 34 times in a single speech, warning that the enemy’s aim was “weakening … our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”

The pace of warnings has barely eased, and their scope has widened. In late 2017, Khamenei said: “Our officials must beware the presence of enemy-assigned infiltrators in decision-making institutions [and] must find out what the enemy is up to.”

Likewise last spring, after IRGC intelligence had stepped up arrests, and Iran was reeling from periodic labor and economic protests nationwide, Khamenei described a multitude of enemy tactics on a “tough battlefront … in this war,” which ranged from “manipulating decision-making processes” to “causing economic and financial turmoil.”

Caught in the net, beside the Americans, has been Canadian-Iranian Abdolrasoul Dorri-Esfahani, a central bank adviser and member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. He was arrested in mid-2016 and sentenced in October 2017 to five years in prison, despite protests of his innocence by Rouhani officials.

Taking direct aim at the president and his allies, the IRGC intelligence arm last September produced a 21-minute propaganda film broadcast on state-run TV. It cast him as a spy and said one aim of Western nations “was to put an infiltrating agent inside our negotiating team.”

Henry Nicholls/Reuters
Stones and placards with messages are placed on the pavement outside the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, March 10, 2018, during a demonstration to demand the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is imprisoned in Iran.

Also snared have been dual UK-Iranian citizens such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker held since April 2016 on spying charges she denies, and Abbas Edalat, a computer science professor at Imperial College London held for eight months last year. Ironically, he had founded an organization called the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII).

After Mr. Edalat’s release in late December, CASMII said that such a “misunderstanding” by Iran’s security apparatus should be seen in the context of “multi-pronged attacks and open threats of the US, Israel, and their allies to destabilize the Islamic Republic of Iran – including massive spending on economic warfare, espionage, and psychological operations against Iranians.”

Was environmentalist a spy?

But the case that perhaps tells most about the prevailing ideology of the “infiltration project” and the political divisions between Iran’s intelligence branches is the arrest of nine environmentalists a year ago who worked for the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation.

Two weeks after their arrest, Kavous Seyyed-Emami, a renowned Iranian-Canadian professor who founded the wildlife body, mysteriously died in prison in what authorities called a suicide – a conclusion rejected by Mr. Seyyed-Emami’s family.

The Tehran prosecutor asserted that the wildlife foundation had been set up as a cover to collect data about sensitive defense and missile bases, and to “infiltrate” Iran’s scientific community “under the guidance” of operatives of the CIA and Israel’s Mossad.

Four of the researchers have reportedly been charged with “corruption on earth,” a crime which can carry the death penalty, and others with spying. Human rights monitors allege that detainees were subjected to months in solitary confinement, death threats, and physical abuse to force confessions.

Throughout, advisers to the president and the Ministry of Intelligence have repeatedly dismissed the IRGC claims against the environmentalists. One reformist lawmaker tweeted last May that ministry experts, based on “indisputable evidence and documents,” had found “no proof” of espionage.

Amid the intelligence tug of war, Rouhani reportedly set up a committee of his security ministers to press for their release.

Then last month, an extraordinary story appeared about the “victim of infighting” between intelligence services. Citing unnamed sources – which some believe may have been from inside the president’s office – the Zeitoon website reported that Israeli operatives had long ago contacted Seyyed-Emami, asking for his collaboration.

According to Zeitoon, Seyyed-Emami then informed the Ministry of Intelligence, which asked in turn if he would take part in a counter-espionage effort, by providing the Israelis with incorrect information. Seyyed-Emami allegedly agreed.

“For quite some time then, he delivered wrong map data and false numerical facts to the Israelis under the supervision of the Ministry of Intelligence,” Zeitoon wrote. It was this activity, monitored by IRGC intelligence and unknown to Seyyed-Emami’s colleagues, which led to the arrests, the website reported.

“If this narrative is correct, then it suggests that [IRGC intelligence chief Hossein Taeb’s] enmity, his partisanship [against Rouhani] is to the extent that he would sabotage an ongoing disinformation campaign,” says an Iranian analyst outside the country, who asked not to be named and is familiar with such cases.

“What this also tells us is that these groups are being targeted,” says the analyst.

Targeting Rouhani

Because Rouhani has criticized the IRGC in the past, there is a “clear element of partisanship, that they want to beat up on Rouhani because they feel he is on the ropes now, the [nuclear deal] has almost collapsed, and ‘we can go in for the strike and cut him off at the knees,’” says the analyst.

As that power struggle continues, the need to root out infiltrators has not faded from the to-do list of Iran’s most strident revolutionaries.

A lengthy speech last August by Alireza Pourmasoud, a hard-line researcher and ideologue connected to the IRGC, traces the “roots of infiltration” back to pre-revolutionary times in the 1960s and 1970s.

Mr. Pourmasoud argues that the CIA, MI6, and Mossad planted agents inside SAVAK – the intelligence service of the pro-West Shah, a close ally of the US and Israel – who then seamlessly embedded themselves in the security structure of the Islamic Republic, where they and their recruits continue to secretly wreak havoc to this day.

“This network has to be unmasked, we need to know who is doing what,” Pourmasoud says in a shortened version of the speech made more concise for easier circulation, which emerged in recent weeks.

“Today the ones who are harming the revolution … are hidden as religious people who act pretty well, they say their prayers in such a committed way that provoke your jealousy,” says Pourmasoud.

“It’s all about some fundamental cleansing that has to be done in our country,” he concludes. “They do infiltrate our establishment from the top, places that you cannot even believe.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.